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A Wake-Up Call: The Importance of Sleep

In order to call attention to the importance of sleep for our health and safety, The National Sleep Foundation has named this week “National Sleep Awareness Week.”

The correct amount of restful, uninterrupted sleep is important to both our physical and emotional health. Sleep is restorative. It improves our mood and energy levels, helps maintains a healthy immune system, and prevents plaque buildup in the brain. This plaque formation is linked to the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Sleep deprivation or the lack of a regular, restful sleep cycle can affect health, safety, and alertness. You may have noticed some symptoms when you didn’t get a full night’s sleep. Were you feeling drowsy? Did you find yourself ready to nod off after a meal or longing for a nap in the mid-afternoon? Have you ever almost drifted off while driving? If you’ve had any of these experiences, you’re not alone. After a full day of work or other activities, the idea of bedtime and restful sleep sounds wonderful. Yet, most people have had trouble falling asleep or remaining asleep at some point in their lives. When falling asleep is difficult, it creates stress that makes sleep even more elusive.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders and intermittent sleep problems.

The NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that:

  • 5,600 to 6,000 fatal crashes may be caused by drowsy drivers each year.

  • Sleeping less than 7 to 8 hours each night, irregular sleep schedules, and poor-quality sleep is associated with health risks.

  • 12 to 18 million American adults have sleep apnea.

  • 70% of high school students are not getting enough sleep on school nights.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night; less sleep may contribute to serious health or safety consequences. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that people who reported sleeping 6 hours or less per night were more likely to fall asleep while driving than those who slept 7 to 9 hours.

What are some of the reasons we can’t sleep?

  • Insomnia
    People with insomnia have trouble falling asleep for a variety of reasons. Stress, excitement, or anticipation of a coming event are emotional factors than can prevent sleep. Physical factors like illness or medication side effects can also cause insomnia. If you think you have insomnia, consult your doctor.

  • Sleep Apnea
    Sleep apnea is a condition that causes brief interruptions in breathing while sleeping. These pauses can happen frequently during the night and can lead to serious health problems such as heart attack, high blood pressure, or stroke if the condition is not treated. Your doctor can detect sleep apnea by a sleep study done at home or in a lab.

  • Restless Leg Syndrome
    People who have Restless Leg Syndrome describe tingling, crawling, or pins and needles sensations in one or both of their legs. These feelings increase during the night. This syndrome occurs more frequently in older people and tends to run in families. In many cases, it can be treated with medication.

  • Narcolepsy
    This is a chronic sleep disorder that causes bouts of drowsiness throughout the day. Those who suffer from narcolepsy will fall asleep frequently and suddenly without warning and find it hard to stay awake for long periods of time. The danger of this disease is that the sleep pattern can occur at any time - while eating, driving, or during some other physical activity - which could result in serious injury. Although there is no cure for narcolepsy, your doctor can advise you on lifestyle changes and medications that can help manage the symptoms.

Healthy Sleep Tips

If you don’t have a specific sleep disorder, but still have occasional difficulty falling asleep, the National Sleep Foundation offers the following tips to help you develop a restful sleep pattern.

  • Turn off the technology - avoid TV, laptops, tablets, and smartphones that may continue to stimulate brain activity and prevent restful sleep.

  • Stick to the same bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends.

  • Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual.

  • Avoid naps, especially in the afternoon.

  • Exercise daily.

  • Evaluate your room for light, temperature, and distractions.

  • Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillow.

  • Use bright light to help manage your circadian rhythms.

  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy meals in the evening.

  • Wind down - your body needs time to shift into sleep mode, so spend the last hour before bed doing a calm activity such as reading.

  • If you can’t sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired.

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